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Oxbridge dominates list of leading UK people
November 20, 2012 12:09 PM   Subscribe

A third of the UK's leading people went to Oxford or Cambridge universities and four out of every 10 of them attended private schools, a report suggests. [BBC]

The list features actors such as Jeremy Irons, Daniel Day-Lewis and Kate Winslet, all of whom were privately educated.

And it features broadcasters such as Tony Blackburn, Rory Bremner, Jeremy Clarkson and Jonathan Dimbleby, again all former independent school pupils.

A recent study indicated independent schools made up 7% of school population yet had produced most leading news journalists, medics, chief executives and 70% of barristers and judges.
posted by marienbad (46 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
"a report suggests"? I think it is bit more than a suggestion, BBC.
posted by marienbad at 12:10 PM on November 20, 2012


"Researchers plan an extensive follow-up study to determine whether Great Britain has a class system."
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:15 PM on November 20, 2012 [22 favorites]


"A report reports." Reportedly.
posted by Nomyte at 12:16 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't you expect the top two universities in the country to produce the top talent?
posted by zeoslap at 12:17 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's a shameful situation, but not one we can challenge without an awful lot of work. It's for the benefit of our country to try, however, as an open society is better than one jammed-up with privilege. Of all the brilliant folk in the 5% who luck into the elite, the 95% must have deep seas of untapped genius.
posted by Jehan at 12:17 PM on November 20, 2012


(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Oh, wait. That's not very surprising.

"Its chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, said private schools should be open to all on the basis of ability not finance."

I don't know about the British schools, but the fancy-pants American universities already do this, at least in some degree: Money and connections will still get you into the school, but merit-based students will be guaranteed the means to attend if they can't afford it.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:19 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for reminding me to check whether 56 Up is out on video yet.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:20 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


zeoslap: who said anything about "talent"? You don't honestly believe that statistics like this are the product of the superior talent of Oxford and Cambridge students, surely? This is about privilege breeding privilege. If the most talented students were the ones admitted to these universities, then I suspect this would be a far better world.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:20 PM on November 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


Wouldn't you expect the top two universities in the country to produce the top talent?
They're actually not the top two (what about Imperial and UCL?), and besides, their student body is disproportionately skewed toward those who have already had private education. Were Oxford and Cambridge the end of a wonderful social-shaking educational system, it wouldn't be a worry. But they're not. Nobody thinks David Cameron and George Osborne are overprivileged and overpromoted just because they went to Oxford.
posted by Jehan at 12:23 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Come on, 1adam12, to get really quality right-wing gobshites like Clarkson fronting telly programmes about cars you have to have self-reproducing elitism built into the system.
posted by Abiezer at 12:23 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


@1adam12 - If you didn't ace your A levels and pass their entrance exam you aren't getting into either of those so yes the people admitted there are indeed top notch. I do agree that they skew towards the privately educated but so do the schools producing kids who can ace the exams.

Oxford and Cambridge are indeed the top two in the UK and I'll bet Imperial and UCL are also well represented in the 'leading people' rankings
posted by zeoslap at 12:29 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


All you get from a public school is a top job and an interest in perverse sexual practises.

(Rah Rah Rah, We're Going to Smash the Oiks)
posted by MartinWisse at 12:34 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for reminding me to check whether 56 Up is out on video yet.

It is available on Netflix AFAIK
posted by briank at 12:39 PM on November 20, 2012


Oxford and Cambridge are indeed the top two in the UK and I'll bet Imperial and UCL are also well represented in the 'leading people' rankings.
Some of the most recent rankings suggest that there is little between the four. They're so near together that while one may be better than another overall, in many subjects it may be worse. It's not really possible to think about "Oxbridge" as the top layer of UK education, without at least also considering Imperial and UCL with that. It's a bit like saying that MIT and Harvard are the "top", but Yale and Princeton aren't. It makes no sense to think about it in that way.

Anyway, do you have any statistics to show that UCL and Imperial are well-represented among the elite? I've no doubt there's lots of them, but if they don't even come near to Oxford and Cambridge, then I think the point stands. I mean, do you know how many of the current UK cabinet went to Imperial or UCL? Not a pretty soul among them.
posted by Jehan at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know about the British schools, but the fancy-pants American universities already do this, at least in some degree: Money and connections will still get you into the school, but merit-based students will be guaranteed the means to attend if they can't afford it.

Just to be clear, this is a reference to secondary schools (high schools). British English does not use the word 'school' for tertiary education.

They're actually not the top two (what about Imperial and UCL?)

Speaking as someone who went to Imperial and had a few girlfriends who went to UCL, many of the students at both also went to independent schools.
posted by atrazine at 12:56 PM on November 20, 2012


One in 10 undergraduates currently studying at Oxford come from households where the family income is below £16,000 per year, the threshold to qualify for free school meals or the government's new pupil premium. Nationally, households with this income account for 15 per cent of the population.

One third of these lower income Oxford students attended independent schools, having had the opportunity to do so because they received financial support or scholarships.

Neither of these facts are widely appreciated, even by those who believe they are well-informed about access.
Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, University of Oxford. From Oxford Today, Michaelmas 2012
posted by MuffinMan at 1:17 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


The only way this will ever change is when organizations - whether banks or media - stop specifically recruiting people who went to certain universities. I know people who have taught at Oxbridge and taught elsewhere: the bottom Oxbridge students are not more capable than the top students at a less selective university (not even the top students are always better). But recruiters have no interest in top students from non-elite universities.

Add in recruitment through social networks, and we continue to see class and connections determine your future.

MuffinMan: that's a good point, that attending an independent school does not mean that one is privileged. Britain also has some excellent charity schools where many or most pupils are not fee-paying.

But it's still not a healthy elite if most people, regardless of their parents' income, attended the same schools and universities. They have no knowledge of how most people live, because they were taken out of that mainstream so early. They'll still normalize the experience of their peers, who are themselves privileged.

anyways, this is the point of the discussion where I just keep thinking about Michael Young and how it's really overall inequality that's the problem and who gives about university admissions when meritocracy is just another word for rule by the intelligent. Just because someone is more intelligent, it doesn't make them a better human.
posted by jb at 1:33 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, University of Oxford. From Oxford Today, Michaelmas 2012
I see you're using independent as in school there.
posted by fullerine at 1:34 PM on November 20, 2012


Anyway, do you have any statistics to show that UCL and Imperial are well-represented among the elite?

The full Sutton Trust report only breaks the figures down into leading people who went to Oxbridge, who make up 31%, and those who went to other universities in the top 30, who make up 20%. So it looks likely that Oxbridge is significantly overrepresented compared to other top universities.

How many privately-educated students attend each university? shows Imperial on 37.2% privately-educated and UCL on 35.6% (compared to Oxford and Cambridge on 46.6 and 42.7%, respectively). But if you use free school meals as a proxy for the poorest students, Imperial and UCL do much better. What I'd like to know but can't find the data for, is whether these percentages are changing significantly over time.
posted by penguinliz at 1:37 PM on November 20, 2012


What I'd like to know but can't find the data for, is whether these percentages are changing significantly over time

You can find Oxford admissions statistics going back to 1990 here
posted by iona at 1:46 PM on November 20, 2012


Here is a study that does a pretty good job comparing the schools (it's using data from '08) but I think it backs up my point that the students attending Oxford and Cambridge would be expected to be very well represented in the list of leading people.

Here is the report that is referenced in the article

31% of top people went to Oxbridge and a further 20% attended another leading
research university in the Sutton Trust 30, but 22% did not go to university

Those results don't really smack of only Oxbridge alum can get top jobs in the UK which is how the article is spun.
posted by zeoslap at 1:47 PM on November 20, 2012


The only way this will ever change is when organizations - whether banks or media - stop specifically recruiting people who went to certain universities

And if the qualities they're looking for correlate strongly, a priori, with alumni of those universities, what should they do?

But it's still not a healthy elite if most people, regardless of their parents' income, attended the same schools and universities. They have no knowledge of how most people live, because they were taken out of that mainstream so early.

With respect, you're talking balls. Look, I'm going to out myself as an ex-Oxford person here. One of the things that is peculiar about Oxbridge is how keen people who didn't go there tell you what your experience was and what sort of a person you are.

I did meet a few of the archetypal silver spooners who glided in on the back of a world class education from Eton or Harrow. But they were outweighed by an order of magnitude by very earnest dorks. Lots and lots of dorks. A lot of kids who had traded time spent having fun for hours spent studying to take exams early, or do extra exams, or do the entrance exams - whether they went to a private school or not. Most of my contemporaries felt incredibly lucky to have got in and spent their first year or two trying to shake off the crushing feeling they weren't clever enough to be there and were impostors. I challenge you to find a more neurotic and competitive university.

The second day I was at university - a week before term formally started, and what was nominally fresher's week - my tutors had kindly loaded me up with four separate assignments due the next week. I was yet to get my library card. If you didn't work hard you got culled by the end of your first year. My first exams were the week I returned for my second term. My second exams were 7 weeks later. My finals, which included no coursework, covered the three previous years and took up around 40 hours. My older brother went to a decent university. His description of the fun he had, the workload he had, bear no resemblance to my own or my friends' experience. My non-university friends' experience seemed, frankly, like a lot more fun. When I started work and found myself pulling 18 hour days and giving up my weekends it was tiring but not a shock.

I'm not complaining. Of course it was a privileged experience at Oxford. You couldn't help but notice as you wandered into a gleaming old quad for your one to one tutorial. But - rich or poor, state or privately educated, whether you'd lucked out to get there or were always meant to be, you were never left in any doubt about what you had to do to stay. The old saying was you could have work, a sport or hobby, or a social life. You could not have all three.

I have no idea what "taken out of the mainstream early" means. The popular image of the Oxford toff is the Bullingdon Club. David, Boris and George in their finery. Look at the pictures again. There are no more than 20 people in the club. My roomate from my first year ended up homeless and died of a heroin overdose 8 years later. He kept it pretty real. Every Oxbridge student I knew, assuming they moved to London, rented cheap, shit shared places on the outer reaches of the tube, worked hard and drank like fish. In 15 years of working with and mentoring graduates from all walks of life and primarily non-Oxbridge backgrounds I can say with some confidence their experiences are similar. True, they aren't binmen, cabbies or dinner ladies. But neither are most other graduates.

It is true that people who go into specific professions can earn a lot, and earn it early. Banking. Law. Management consultancy. Banking especially, although interestingly it is also a place where lots of non-Oxbridge types thrive. But not the Foreign Office, for example, that bastion of Oxbridge graduates. In my old firm hundreds of non-Oxbridge, often non-graduate, salespeople in their twenties earned more per year than a fast track foreign office person's annual income after 20 years. I don't think Oxbrdige grads are all salt of the earth. But this idea there is a special, hermetic life for them is alien to my experience.

And on the subject of independent schools. Of course it is important, and the numbers are dominated by a small group of large schools that take in smart kids from rich parents and prepare them exceptionally. But less well known are some very successful state schools, some in London, some like Hills Road in Cambridge are not that also feed prodigious numbers of kids into the system. Ultimately, paying a whopping premium to buy a house within the catchment of a good state school is itself a manifestation of privilege. But it is an inconvenience to mention it. It complicates an otherwise simple story with the unworthy toffs on one side and the worthy proles on the other.

For more than 20 years, Oxford and Cambridge colleges have run substantial outreach programmes, to break down one of the largest barriers to applications: the perception among [poorer] state school pupils that even if they're smart enough, Oxford or Cambridge isn't for them. This idea about "couldn't possibly understand the mainstream" and the popular media image of Brideshead Revisited is very much part of that problem. The second wave of that programme is that alumni are being tapped up for a lot of cash to fund scholarships for poorer students, to mitigate the effects of tuition fees and the removal of the grant. There are already some big name, multimillion dollar donations. I hope there are more. I donate on a monthly basis to fund access programmes for lower income students.

Oxford and Cambridge still have work to do. They can, and should do better. But the admissions tutors and the students who work with them are raw with frustration at the disconnect between how hard they work to reach out and the same lazy old tropes they read and the criticism they face for being elitist. No university can retrospectively magic away a kid's poor education. Against a backdrop of two decades of grade inflation at A-level there is only so far a sensitive selection process can go to balance up potential v achieved exam results without implementing a quota system. It is a political point about whether universities should, in fact, socially engineer. I believe they shouldn't, and that complaining about the end point - selective elite universities dominating selective and specialised jobs is looking in the wrong place for both the problem and the solution.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:13 PM on November 20, 2012 [23 favorites]


It's worth noting that there's going to be *a lot* of lag in these statistics. They looked at 8000 of the UKs "top figures" - presumably people who've achieved a great deal. The average age of those people mentioned is 57, and I'd imagine that's consistent throughout the data set.

Someone aged 57 went to university in the late seventies. The educational system looked very different then - class was more embedded, far fewer people went to university, there was much less of a sense of equal opportunities for less privileged, and so inevitably the people emerging at the top 30 years later come from a particular background.

It would be interesting to see how this changes over the next 30 years.
posted by leo_r at 3:23 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Someone aged 57 went to university in the late seventies. The educational system looked very different then - class was more embedded, far fewer people went to university, there was much less of a sense of equal opportunities for less privileged, and so inevitably the people emerging at the top 30 years later come from a particular background.

On the other hand, education was free, a comprehensive welfare safety net existed, and so a bright working-class kid had an easier time of climbing the ladder on his or her merit. By all accounts, the middle of the second half of the 20th century was when social mobility was at its peak in Britain.
posted by acb at 4:01 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is a political point about whether universities should, in fact, socially engineer. I believe they shouldn't, and that complaining about the end point - selective elite universities dominating selective and specialised jobs is looking in the wrong place for both the problem and the solution.

I'm not sure I understand. Universities are already complicit in social engineering. It is argued that their symbiosis with certain powerful, professional fields is the core of the problem; this point has already been made by academics within the last two decades. A solution may not be apparent, but at least there are people trying to understand the problem better.
posted by polymodus at 4:17 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


MuffinMan: Your undergrad experience sounds like it involved just about the same amount of work as any top student at a non-elite university, only they did it with less support than Oxbridge offers. I worked the same amount, only add in an hour-long commute each way by public transit and no meal plan/dining hall. Also, we did 12-week terms instead of 8 (though only 2 terms per year, since everyone worked full time through the summer term to make money for the next year's tuition).

I've directly observed life (as an undergrad or grad student) at two Canadian state universities, an Oxbridge and one of the Ivies. Oxbridge and the Ivy were both challenging but also very priviledged places to be (whether undergrad or grad, but more so for the undergrad). Certainly, when it came to tertiary education issues, the sheer isolation of priviledge at the Oxbridge/Ivy uni was palpable -- but more so at the Oxbridge, since it was only really aware of life at one other place, not seven. Even students who came from state schools could and did get swept up into certain ways of thinking -- the Oxbridge culture is pretty damn strong, esp if you arrive there as a teenager.

But when I was talking about being "taken out of the mainstream early" - I was partly thinking of myself. Though my family was on benefits, I realise that I was not fully exposed to lower class life or culture because I was moved into a special educational program that immersed me in middle class culture.

Thing is: we (aka our respective countries) have representational governments because we believe that we need different perspectives to rule well. But if all of our elite - political, media, academic - all come from the same culture or are inculcated in that culture from a young age (eg through scholarships to independent schools), what kind of diversity do we have?

What does it mean for public policy if elites have never applied for or don't know anyone on Job seekers allowance? or if - like one local magistrate I met - they think living in a one bedroom apartment in London is "roughing it"? okay, she was just old fashioned untitled nobility.

But my point is that elites in Britain do come from a specific cultural class - one which coopts capable people from other classes, but still dominates. It's still acceptable to expect people to take unpaid internships, for example, something that is clearly unacceptable for any country concerned about inequality.

But overall, the Oxbridge thing is a derail. Elites will always be elites, however they are chosen (money, brains, luck, birth). If we really want to improve equality, we would look to flattening the social structure altogether, not trying to improve the sorting mechanism.

It's not just about social justice, but about diversity. To pull from an example from my home country, if the majority of Canada's political and cultural elites were all from Newfoundland, that would be a very narrow culture - it happens to be a wonderful culture, but not reflective of the country at large.
posted by jb at 7:01 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


"a report suggests"? I think it is bit more than a suggestion, BBC.

I expect the BBC will be couching all of its claims in as many weasel words as possible for a while yet.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:04 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


But overall, the Oxbridge thing is a derail. Elites will always be elites, however they are chosen (money, brains, luck, birth). If we really want to improve equality, we would look to flattening the social structure altogether, not trying to improve the sorting mechanism.

It's not just about social justice, but about diversity.


Do you really want "diversity" of "brains" when it comes to "medics, chief executives and… barristers and judges"? When I'm having a heart operation, I think I would prefer the brilliant doctor with the solid education.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:49 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Last time I was at Cambridge I had a conversation with a recent grad who had never heard of Bertrand Russell. I found that kinda sad.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:39 AM on November 21, 2012


I'm in complete agreement with MuffinMan there. I went to Oxford and saw a reasonably wide spread of students from all backgrounds. Was it an accurate cross section of British society? Almost certainly not.... but it definitely wasn't the cliche of posh braying public school Hooray Henries and rugger buggers everywhere you looked.

The one thing everyone had in common was their work ethic, which stretched to working slightly too hard and taking failure a little too personally.


.....the 95% must have deep seas of untapped genius.

If you think Oxbridge would overlook a pool of smart kids purely because they were not in the top 5% of earners, you'd be dead wrong. Again, I can confirm what MuffinMan said, the biggest stumbling block was to get over the inverse snobbery that a lot of people had.
posted by fishboy at 3:15 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you didn't ace your A levels and pass their entrance exam you aren't getting into either of those so yes the people admitted there are indeed top notch.

It's not as clear-cut as that. The first question I was asked at my interview was 'what does your father do?' The second - it was a fairly middle-class job - was 'oh yes, where does he work?' I quickly found out during the course of the interview that their program was not at all suitable for what I wanted to pursue at degree level study (it was SPS and the interview material was a study of social mobility from 1960 - there was very little on the curriculum that covered youth culture, second/third wave feminism or any of the other late 20th century issues that interested me) but even then I knew it wasn't for me. I went to a Russell Group university where I had the opportunity to be taught by a 60s radical turned leading feminist academic, I was able to get a term-time job which I needed to eat, and I was able to go to gigs and live among real people rather than student ghettos and snog boys, all of which were as much why I wanted to go to university and study, but no matter how much I felt I was counting pennies alongside the many richer kids there, I never had the feeling of not belonging that those two questions made me feel would constantly follow me around had I gone ot Cambridge. I was exceptionally bright and able, I was from a good state sixth-form college, and they were more interested in my parent's employment, and I felt that said a lot. That's why the kids like me who didn't feel Oxbridge was the best fit, or didn't feel the courses offered what they wanted to study, or just got in elsewhere take umbrage at the suggestion that only a 'top university' education is worthwhile or that other institutions (including mine which now admits by interview as well for many courses) mean that you're less capable at heart surgery.

Inverse snobbery is a bad and self-limiting thing, I have met people who carry enough chips on their shoulders to supply McDonalds, but at 18 it's hard enough to leave home and live amongst people without feeling like you are the only one of your kind - and I say that as someone who hated the miserly, anti-intellectual attitude of my home town and was very fond of posh boys in scarves. (Aye, I know they're not all posh boys - my friend went to an extremely well-reknowned London private school but grew up in near-poverty; I work with an Oxbridge graduate who came from very working-class Margate.) I was diagnosed with clinical depression (later bipolar disorder) at the end of my first term, and while the academic pressure would have been a difficult distraction, I had a lot of problems with feeling like I didn't fit in and that would have really intensified in an institution where I felt more like an outlier.

A friend of mine, one of the cleverest people I have ever met, absolutely loathed doing his PhD there because he is from a very working-class background and was made to feel like a mascot at best. He was particularly appalled at how rude people were to serving staff, because his friends and relatives had done precisely this kind of job.
posted by mippy at 5:15 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do you really want "diversity" of "brains" when it comes to "medics, chief executives and… barristers and judges"? When I'm having a heart operation, I think I would prefer the brilliant doctor with the solid education.
posted by esprit de l'escalier


See, that's where those of us who have experience (as students and as teachers) will tell you that elite institutions do not have monopoly on brains. No one at an elite university is dim (well, except for that one student I had...), but the best description I've heard is that the students at elite universities are like the students at other universities, but with the bottom cut off. Students getting As at the Ivy where I graded were not brighter than those who got As at my Canadian uni (and a full A was harder to get for a bit at my SO's Canadian uni) - they were just a larger percentage of the class. Which made for better overall class experiences, but doesn't mean that they would be better at their future carreers than those who had to get themselves through less ideal situations.

Moreover: academic intelligence is only one type of intelligence and knowledge. Surgery, notably, requires certain practical hand skills, while general medicine often requires very important people skills. It doesn't matter if you have the highest grades if you can't communicate with your patients and so don't understand their health properly. And for policy positions: if I were setting up policies for homelessness, for example, I would much rather that someone who is or has been homeless be involved than just someone who had an excellent education, because there are a lot of important things that even an excellent education doesn't teach.

For political and cultural elites, this kind of soft knowledge is as important as academic knowledge.

But I will also refute that elite universities always confer the best academic knowledge - if you look to graduate programs, you see people coming out of lots of different undergrad program (elite, non-elite). Graduate programs are a place where academics really is all that matters -- and they recognise that elite universities don't have monopoly on excellence.

But many firms and media organisations act like they do.
posted by jb at 6:01 AM on November 21, 2012


If you think Oxbridge would overlook a pool of smart kids purely because they were not in the top 5% of earners, you'd be dead wrong.

I think Oxbridge would overlook a large chunk of smart kids because they didn't have the same opportunities to go to a well funded independent school and thus didn't get the three A*s they needed to be considered, even though they would have given the same support. I think they would overlook them because they went to a school or came from a cultural background where doing well at school were not as valued. I think they would overlook them because the students came from a school or family where Oxbridge was not seen as attainable or because a teacher said they weren't right or because the student felt that was not a place where their sort of person went. I think they would overlook them because a student was not used to being formally interviewed or had not been tutored specifically on how to behave in an Oxbridge interview because their state school didn't do that. I think they would overlook them for a lot of other reasons too.
posted by biffa at 6:59 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think you'd be wrong about a lot of those biffa.
This article is worth a read, and you'll see how admissions tutors do consider backgrounds, and not because they want to take the privately schooled preferentially.
posted by edd at 7:39 AM on November 21, 2012


And yet 7% of the population get ~40% of the places at Oxbridge, the 7% who have gone to private schools. Is it just that people with money have cleverer kids do you think?
posted by biffa at 8:00 AM on November 21, 2012


So I've talked to people who decide on the Oxbridge Admissions. They really do want more diversity (well, some do), but there are systemic problems that stand in the way.

some of those include:
- admission may require special tests -- some secondary schools actively support pupils taking those tests, others do not

- for graduate programs, the bureaucracy is crazy and confusing - people tell me that admissions for undergraduate are easier, but I still wonder how much difference the amount of support your school offers makes

- they use face-to-face interviews that are open to unconscious biases -- the biggest effect of judging students by interview performance (as opposed to a written test) may not be on the class make-up, but gender of admitted students (Oxbridge is the one bit of the UK university system where there are still more male students than female - many colleges try to excuse a 60-40 male-female balance by claiming that the women's colleges make up the difference, but they don't). The use of photos in admissions is equally problematic, and completely unnecessary (they even use them in graduate admissions where there are no interviews or interviews by telephone only - you have to wonder why, except to expose applicants to biases).

- the criteria used to judge the interviews are often quite subjective, leaving the system open to the kind of homophilia biases that we all have (we like people who are more like ourselves, whether in class, gender or Star Trek fandom)

- the individual colleges (admission is by college, as well as by university) are under a lot of pressure to keep up their place in the examination league tables, so they are more likely to admit pupils who are "known quantities" (admissions people in Oxbridge will say things like. "Well, pupils from that school have done well in the past, so this person is more likely to do well") -- as far as the league tables are concerned, it is better to admit a pupil who is guarenteed to get a 2.1 in their exams for three years than to admit someone who might get a first but who also might flame out and get a 2.2 or a 3rd. The teaching reflects this as well: students in my SO's department were trained to write essays for their exams that would get them a 2.1, but not encouraged to take intellectual risks that could lead to a first, but also could lead to a lower grade. He said that his tutees were, by their third year, bored by the lack of challenge.

Actually, someone pointed out to me that the independent school versys state school thing is also a bit of a red herring. Admissions are dominated by a very small number of schools, which are themselves a mix of independent and state schools. It doesn't really matter is Oxbridge ends up being 100% state school, if that's 100% from 20 specific state schools.

Interestingly - this quote from edd's link:
"The phrase "a good school" comes up repeatedly in the tutors' discussions. It is used most frequently about private and grammar schools, but also some comprehensive schools, and has a double meaning. "A good school" is a high-performing one. It is a school that knows what Cambridge requires, where the school reference is delivered in the terms the university is looking for – the key phrases are ones that emphasise superlative performance compared with their age group: "He [or she] is best in … he is top of …" But when a candidate comes from "a good school" they are also cut less slack."
doesn't jibe with what I heard informally, off the record. Pupils from "good schools" (which meant "schools we know, schools that have sent pupils before") were not held to a higher standard, but seen as more reliable. But maybe Churchill College was less worried about reliability, being both larger and newer than the college I knew well.

It's interesting that the article also brings up the issue that under-prepared student, regardless of their aptitude, would struggle at Oxbridge. From what I have seen of teaching at Oxbridge, this would be true, particularly in the humanities (which are very self-directed). But in North America, the Ivies offer more academic support (what some would even call "hand-holding") than most larger and less elite universities. Not all students made use of the writing tutors, etc, that were provided, but they were there, and certainly there was more support for students struggling with stress, deadlines, etc. But everyone knows that the really hard-ass places on deadlines are community colleges, or at least that is true in Canada: the less prestigious the program (esp undergrad BA/BSc versus community college), the less slack given to the student. It's just like the work-world that way.
posted by jb at 8:12 AM on November 21, 2012


I'm not claiming there are no biases in the system favouring the private schooled. I am saying that the multiple suggestions that people are simply 'overlooked' are insufficiently nuanced and if you want to resolve the problem it needs careful examination of exactly where the problem lies.
Note: to assist you in judging my own biases - I spent over 7 years at Oxford in all, from a state-schooled but comfortably middle-class background
posted by edd at 8:49 AM on November 21, 2012


edd: I totally agree. I actually think that changing Oxbridge admissions is a moot point. I would rather see Britain go more of a Canadian route where what university you went to has less effect on your future career than what you do during and after undergrad, not what you did as a secondary pupil. We have this because we have more equality in general among our universities - there several excellent and dozens of good universities (some of which are better at specific things than more highly ranked universities, and this is widely acknowledged), and people don't take what university you attended as seriously as in Britain or the USA. But I don't know is this is possible, given the class and educational history of Britain. Also, we have our own ways of making high elites in Canada: we send our candidates for very high positions off into the Ivies and/or Oxbridge, thus outsourcing our elite-creation.

But in the meantime, if the British elite want to be more representational, organizations should broaden their recruitment to more universities. That doesn't mean accepting poorer candidates, but looking for capable candidates from less prestigious universities. I think they will be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. But maybe they don't care, and will just do the simplest and easiest thing and recruit more people just like themselves. But then they shouldn't be surprised when people feel alienated by the system.

for my own disclosure: I did my undergrad in Canada, graduate work at an Ivy League, but I was a visiting scholar in Cambridge for 2 years and married to a Cambridge graduate student who has taught at Cambridge, at an Ivy, and in Canada - between the two of us, and other colleagues and relatives, we've had an inside view of the workings of four different universities in three countries. I'm a Canadian citizen, but also a British permanent resident, and I care a great deal about Britain - it's my second home. I want what's best for Britain - but I'm not convinced that the current setup is best.
posted by jb at 9:08 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I actually think that changing Oxbridge admissions is a moot point. I would rather see Britain go more of a Canadian route where what university you went to has less effect on your future career than what you do during and after undergrad

Two points on this:

1) It's already happening. It will continue to happen. The data has a large lag, as noted above. Oxbridge prepares people well for lots of jobs, but it doesn't train in lots of of skills like emotional intelligence or commercial nous. The huge growth in psychometric profiling and other recruitment techniques has changed one dimensional recruitment processes. I don't believe the market always works freely, but this is a place where what the market can be specified, tested for, and specifically recruited for.

2) You're treating Oxbridge as if the fact of going there is the be all and end all. It isn't. The factors like intelligence and drive and proven track record in applying themselves to date that make students attractive to admissions tutors also correlate with what some recruiters look for in fresh graduates. In other words, it's the old chestnut that correlation is not causation. Your statement upthread that Oxbridge alumni share a cultural class - whatever that means - overplays the impact of 3-4 years of education within the context of a 40 year working career.

If Britain wants to be more representative it should look at the issue of social mobility holistically, and properly. Addressing the question from a single perspective is unhelpful. The Laura Spence "incident", for example is a classic case of political bait and switch. A Labour government that presided over a huge widening in the gap between rich and poor used her to distract from its own failings both in promoting social mobility and in continuing the grade inflation that made the process of distinguishing between promising candidates all the more harder.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:28 AM on November 21, 2012


I think you'd be wrong about a lot of those biffa.
This article is worth a read, and you'll see how admissions tutors do consider backgrounds, and not because they want to take the privately schooled preferentially.


I think it would be fair to say that some of the factors I mentioned are not (mostly) within the control of the institutions. To try to be fair I do think that Oxbridge have tried to do more than other top universities, in so much as they do interviews at all; most applicants at leading universities will have a decision made purely on their predicted results without any reference to their acheivements, personal statement or anything else. (If a university has too many applicants likely to get the required grades they will do some high offers that year then the minimum will be raised for that course the next year.) The issue is that Oxbridge is a huge advantage and that it is accruing to people who have been hugely advantaged already. The UK misses out by not having this available to its best. But yes, solving this is a a wider societal problem as well as a problem for the colleges and for government. Sadly, it looks like the government is going the other way.

Problem is that a lot of this is only going to get worse. The incentives that are coming in increasingly due to current Government policy will affect the sector as a whole and IMHO will make elite recruitment worse. A leading university can recruit as many students with ABB grades on 2013 as they can get. They can then take on a limited number if students below these grades. This limit will go down every year. The aim is to create a market which will force universities to attract high achievers or consider dropping to £6k fees (basically death for a top 15-20 uni). No uni will take an underqualified student that takes them over their control figure (big fine per student). So the number of students from poorer backgrounds who can get into an elite uni will drop over time. Also, it looks like any student who screws up their A levels then goes back and builds up their qualifications again will still count against the control number, so less clever people will be able to get into the top unis from that direction. Essentially shit A levels will brand you for life.

The sop is that universities wanting to charge £9k fees have to have targets for widening participation. Any uni not meeting the targets agreed with the regulator will face action, with getting kicked out of the £9k club being the big sanction. The problem for the cynical amongst us? The targets aren't for recruitment from a wider pool (how could they be, since there is a limited pool of ABB+ students?), they are for spending money on recruitment.

It is an interesting article, I read it when it was published, its an interesting insight but I do think it is limited in so much as that is clearly a puff piece that's come straight out of an idea from Cambridge's press office. It doesn't address many of the wider problems.
posted by biffa at 11:40 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Essentially shit A levels will brand you for life.

You'd think they already learned from the 11-plus idiocy that it's always a bad idea to make someone's educational career dependent on one set of exams.

Not that exams aren't a messed up way to base your system anyways. History exams in British universities bear little resemblance to the actual practice of history -- and the practicing for them is better for training journalists than historians. I don't know other disciplines as well, but I imagine there are lots of others in which the exams bear as little resemblance to the actual practice.
posted by jb at 2:34 PM on November 21, 2012


What's surprising is how little this seems to have been picked up on. The government has managed to introduce policies which basically play to all those concerns in the Times and Telegraph that little johnny might lose his rightful place at top university to someone who got a grade lower than him 9or even the same as him) but went to a shit school, and they have done it without really troubling the liberal press for coverage of the situation.
posted by biffa at 5:04 PM on November 21, 2012


Essentially shit A levels will brand you for life.

You'd think they already learned from the 11-plus idiocy that it's always a bad idea to make someone's educational career dependent on one set of exams.


'Twas always the way. A secondary criticism is that A-levels force specialisation on 16 year old kids. Unless you have the luxury of retraining or going back to school, you need to decide whether you want to be, say, a doctor, when you choose your GCSEs and is critical when you choose your A-levels.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:18 AM on November 22, 2012


I think they would overlook them because a student was not used to being formally interviewed or had not been tutored specifically on how to behave in an Oxbridge interview because their state school didn't do that.

My state sixth-form in a poor area did do tutoring, but from this I expected polite discussion rather than the rather aggressive questioning I had (I referenced a work, and then the theorist it was by, to the sound of a snapped 'YES I know who wrote THAT' - I hadn't been prepared for that at all.) I also did not have experience of appropriate dres,s nor the local resources available to get hold of that. I find it really difficult to respond to aggressiveness without shrinking back and away from the argument, and though now I wonder if a Cambridge education would have helped with that (I have to do it at work and it took me a while to get good at it) I was even more so at 17 because that difficulty was related to my home environment, and I had no experience of it in an academic or any other situation where it would be both expected and accepted to stand ground.


To try to be fair I do think that Oxbridge have tried to do more than other top universities, in so much as they do interviews at all


My SO went to a post-1992 university and entrance there was by interview. Most applicants where I went have to be formally interviewed now as well - not sure if this was for Linguistics, which I did, as it's a less popular course, but certainly for English entry.
posted by mippy at 6:30 AM on November 22, 2012


mippy, if it makes you feel any better before I went for interview I went to an open day. Before I had said a word, the tutor I met was late, incredibly rude and utterly dismissive of my interest in the subject he taught. He threw a reading list at me and told me if I really had any interest I should read it. He hadn't actually asked what I had read. I left our meeting 10 minutes later and raged I'd apply to Oxford over my dead body.

Two months later, I applied to a completely different college. My first interview was polite and on topic. My second was equally polite and on topic, but the don had a very odd manner that utterly threw 18 year old me. It turned out he was one of those dons who are appalling at educating or even conversing with other people. His default face - and I don't think he knew he was doing it - was "but how can you be stupid"? I'm convinced I only got in because the phone rang half way through the interview and he got up to answer it, giving me a precious minute of thinking time. I never again met a tutor as rude as the first one and nor a tutor as eccentric as the second one.

FWIW my candidate group all felt underprepared - as we confessed to one another over cups of coffee - we were there two days for two 30 minute interviews so had a lot of downtime.

My wife applied to Cambridge, from a leading girl's private school. The guy that interviewed her at the college of her choice basically told her that he didn't think women made good scientists. She got rejected and put into the pool for other colleges to pull from if the wanted. She got picked up by a women's college and reinterviewed. And three years later got a first, highly prized by colleges because of the way they affect the rankings. Her college sent the first interviewer a note telling him what he'd missed out on.

These were still the days when interviewees were warned about the mythical ways interviewers would confuse and befuddle their interviewees. What I didn't know then was that those days had basically ended in the late eighties, and the remaining few dons who insisted on being dicks were slowly being put out to pasture through the nineties.

I can understand why lots of people, especially people who didn't get in, have their war stories. If you didn't get in, what positive experience later is there to counterbalance it? But even in the short time I was there it was obvious a sea change was going on in terms of how the colleges dealt with the whole admissions process and the issue of access.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:11 AM on November 22, 2012


My interview was in 1999 so I don't know if I was unlucky - the first, 'general' interviewer seemed a nice enough chap. I do know nobody from our year got a place, and we did apply to a variety of colleges, so who knows.

My friend from the fancy top-of-league-tables London school didn't get a place in an Oxford women's college either, and would have gone had she done so rather than to the university where we met.

An ex of mine claimed his school didn't allow him to apply at all for 'disciplinary reasons'. That seems slightly implausible as all my application involved was filling out an extra form.
posted by mippy at 1:21 PM on November 22, 2012


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